September/October 2020 Issue
August 22, 2020

Educator-led human rights institutes inspire students in New York, across the country

Author: Liza Frenette
human rights symposium

Since participating in her first human rights symposium two years ago, Bethlehem student Zoe Thomas has become involved with several activism groups at school and in her community.

She’s raised funds to help victims of human trafficking and worked to bring attention to the lack of diversity in her school’s curriculum.

This summer, she met with the head of her high school English department to discuss why only one Black author has been assigned in four years. Thomas helped stage a read-in where students and alumni, wearing masks and practicing safe distancing, read a poem or book excerpt from an author of color. It was followed by a protest to address the need for training on racial bias and racism within the school.

Thomas and other teens are driving these kinds of actions after being immersed in NYSUT-supported human rights education.

The 13th Summer Symposium held in Western New York and the Capital Region Institute for Human Rights event were held online via Zoom due to COVID-19 restrictions. They focus on education, historical perspective and resources to help foster change.

In the Capital Region, 105 students — a record number— swapped summer sunshine for laptops to study the poems of different social movements, and learned about young people at the forefront of social justice and how to reverse runaway inequality.

Kelly Wetherbee, who organizes the summit along with fellow North Colonie Teachers Association member Thea MacFawn, told students they make a difference by what they post on social media.

She urged students to “think about what we amplify” and to evaluate news sources for reliability.

“Misinformation is designed to manipulate emotions,” she cautioned. “Emotional responses override rational thought.” She advised students not to simply retweet or repost, but to investigate the source of information.

All participants also received Education of an Idealist, written by keynote speaker Samantha Powers, former ambassador to the U.N.

“You are social justice warriors,” NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Philippe Abraham told the group. “We’re not free unless we’re all free.”

Abraham urged the young activists to visit NYSUT’s virtual vigil ( for justice, peace and action to learn specific steps they can take to get involved.

The Western New York program — under the theme “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” — commemorated the centennial passage of the 19th Amendment. Students from six states and five different countries explored pressing issues facing women.

Whether via making art or making a documentary, students learned from women of change about how to get active.

“What is the point of exploring history except to change the future,” said speaker Nada Odeh, a Syrianborn artist and activist.

The Buffalo-based Summer Symposium is sponsored by the Academy for Human Rights, led by Springville TA member Andrew Beiter and co-sponsored by Erie 1 BOCES.

In addition to the student symposium, the Academy offers professional development programs for educators throughout the year.